The US Congressional hearings last month, raising concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear programme along with threats of renewed sanctions, no doubt evoke a sense of déjà vu among Pakistanis, who are familiar with recurring US sanctions since the 1970s, especially the Presseler Amendment.
On December 8, 2015, Republican Congressmen Ted Poe, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Sub Committee, convened a hearing on Pakistan’s nuclear policy which was followed by a hearing of the full House Foreign Affairs Committee on the ‘Future of US- Pakistan Relations’ on December 16, chaired by Republican Congressman Ed Royce. Not surprisingly, both these Congressional leaders are members of the India Caucus and were joined by other pro-Indian members such as Dana Rohrabacher, Brian Higgins and Robert Engel.
Alleging that Pakistan is a “fount of radical Islamist thought”, a “terrorist heaven” and has “the world’s fastest growing nuclear weapons programme”, these Congressmen even referred to Pakistan as a “snitch”, a “double dealer” and a “Benedict Arnold”. Among their recommendations to the Obama Administration was to “get tough” with Pakistan by strictly enforcing the existing requirements of certifications to be eligible for US assistance and arms sales as well as proposing the imposition of renewed sanctions if Pakistan continues to ignore US concerns.
While such vitriol is expected from biased Congressmen who receive generous funding from the Indian-American lobby, the testimony given by the US administration’s representative, Richard Olson, Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan and former ambassador to Islamabad, should have been more balanced and factual. Instead, he told the Congressmen that “we do share your concerns, particularly about the development of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal”. He added that “we are concerned most by the pace and the scope of Pakistan’s missile programme including its pursuit of nuclear systems”. He also strongly denied that the US administration would negotiate a civil-nuclear cooperation agreement as signed with India. Nowhere in his testimony did Olson acknowledge the Indian conventional and strategic military build-up including its Cold Start Doctrine in response to which Pakistan has been forced to ensure credible deterrence.
These Congressional hearings are part of a familiar pattern that the American system pursues, irrespective of who occupies the White House, when it wishes to target a particular country. This process involves careful orchestration between the administration, the Congress, the think tanks and the mainstream media. It starts with selective official leaks to the media which are followed by articles and editorials in papers such as The New York Times and Washington Post. These are picked up by academics in think tanks such as Carnegie, Brookings, and Stimson Centre among others, which produce ostensibly objective studies on the issue with doctored recommendations.
This sets the stage for Congress to step in by holding hearings on the issue to which the same academics and experts are usually invited to provide testimony and recommendations. Thereafter follows the final act – to draft legislation to either reward or punish a country, depending upon the desired objective. Pakistan knows this pattern very well having been a subject of the Symington, Glenn and Presseler amendments.
In the present instance the American objective is to enforce a cap on Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programme without any corresponding attempt to restrain India. The US administration tried to bribe Pakistan by offering it ‘nuclear mainstreaming’, which was rightly rebuffed. Hence, it seems that the ground is being prepared for punitive action. It is now up to the current or the next US administration to decide when to pull the plug by denying certification and further encouraging Congress to legislate new, or re-impose earlier, sanctions against Pakistan which were withdrawn when the US needed Pakista’s help after 9/11.
The only restraining factor for the short-to-medium term is the American reliance on Pakistan in order to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan. Ambassador Olson recognised this reality when he admitted in his testimony that “while we do not always see eye to eye, our relationship with Pakistan is vital to the national security of the US”. As long as this US requirement lasts there will be no resort to sanctions. But as soon as this ends, the likelihood of sanctions will increase. We only need to remember the imposition of the Presseler sanctions in October 1990 within months of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In the face of Indian conventional and strategic military build-up, the most recent example being reports of Indian development of the hydrogen bomb, Pakistan does not have the option to cap its pursuit of credible full spectrum deterrence. Accordingly, we need to make an informed judgement on the future course of the US response.
While our efforts must continue to try to convince Washington of our legitimate security imperatives, the essential requirement will be to ensure a lasting strategic convergence. However, it is doubtful that Washington will agree. It would be prudent to prepare for the eventuality of being sanctioned. This requires careful planning by our government, and should involve all stakeholders. It will also require greater self-reliance as well as the effort to develop other options with friendly countries for which the prevailing international situation provides conducive environment.
In my view, unilateral US sanctions do not work as our past experience proves. There is also no chance of more multilateral UN-backed sanctions against Pakistan as we can count on our friends to veto such Security Council action. At the same time, unilateral sanctions have in fact helped Pakistan – by generating greater self-reliance. Therefore, we need to be confident of our ability to withstand such pressure if and when it is applied.
Therefore, Pakistan is in a strong bargaining position which it must leverage effectively to protect its interests and remain steadfast – despite the sound and fury emanating from Washington.
The writer is a former ambassador and former permanent representative to the UN in Geneva. The views expressed here are his own.